Campaign and reality
In this edited version of her speech to the CPGB aggregate, Yassamine Mather looks at Donald Trump’s foreign policy after his first hundred days
The main slogans that dominated Donald Trump’s election campaign were to a certain extent contradictory. He kept saying he wants to make America ‘great again’, but, on the other hand, he appeared to propose an isolationist foreign policy, without money being wasted on foreign wars. But making America great again surely means retaining or enhancing the US role as the world hegemon - you cannot be isolationist at the same time.
So, for all the hype we saw after Trump’s inauguration, all the demonstrations by those worried about fascism being on the march in the world’s largest economy, it turns out that his foreign policy is not that different from standard neoconservative Republicanism - and not that different from Obama’s foreign policy or, for that matter, what Hillary Clinton was promising. While, of course, the language of the new president remains unconventional - and many people comment about Trump’s flip-flops in his Twitter messages, etc - the substance of the foreign policy pursued by his administration so far is very much in line with that of recent presidents.
I am not denying the fact Trump is quite capable of expressing extremist views - it even looked as though the US and North Korea were on the brink of war a couple of weeks ago. However, the fact that the threats remained just that speaks volumes. So let us look at the last 100-plus days - what he had promised and what he has done.
If you remember, Trump said that he would force China - which he claimed was responsible for unemployment and poverty in the US - to accept new tough conditions prior to trade deals. Well, we can say quite categorically that he has not followed through this tough talk. The new administration has not imposed high tariffs or any other protectionist measures, contrary to what he threatened to do during his campaign. Of course, international capital is happy about this, which is reflected in the way markets have reacted to the first few months of the Trump administration. So we haven’t heard the kind of rhetoric we heard during the election debates calling China a currency manipulator. There is much talk of two warring factions within the administration - led by Steve Bannon, the super-nationalist, and Jared Kushner, the globalist. But, as far as China is concerned, it appears the globalists have won out over the nationalists, at least for the time being.
After originally suggesting that Washington’s historical ‘one China’ policy concerning relations with Taiwan might be used as a leverage to extract concessions from China on other issues, Trump is now saying he wants to reduce tension between the two countries. After repeatedly saying that China must help solve America’s ‘North Korea problem’, Trump is now telling us: “Beijing’s relationship with North Korea is quite complicated.”
Trump recently won a legal battle for his name to appear on a trademark for real-estate-agent services in commercial and residential properties in China. Critics claimed the Chinese government wanted to “curry favour” and Senator Dianne Feinstein claimed: “China’s decision to award president Trump with a new trademark, allowing him to profit from the use of his name, is a clear conflict of interest.”1 According to the website, Think Progress, the deal is also problematic for China: the decision violated a Chinese rule prohibiting trademarks that are “the same as or similar to the name of leaders of national, regional or international political organisations”.2
All this has coincided with a reversal of Trump’s position regarding the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. He had claimed to be very much against it, yet he is now a convert and might even go to the next summit.
Everyone knows that Trump was going to build a wall along the Mexican border in the first few weeks of the new administration - which, of course, the Mexicans were going to pay for. During the election campaign, he claimed the wall would make US inner cities free of drug dealers and stop US citizens losing their jobs to immigrants. His failure to make that a reality, although predictable, has caused resentment amongst sections of his supporters.
He was also going to scrap the North America Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), while the US was also going to leave Nato. On this issue too, there has been a U-turn - although Trump is now trying to encourage Germany and other European countries to make larger contributions to the costs.
During the election campaign Trump made a number of accusations about Saudi Arabia and the Emirates of the Persian Gulf, claiming they were helping to finance Clinton’s campaign, while not doing enough to fight Islamic State. He stated that Russia was the only country doing that, but, if he was elected, he would ensure that IS was destroyed within weeks of gaining office.
All this changed almost overnight. The current US policy towards Saudi Arabia is very much a continuation of the neoconservative strategy, as outlined by the Project for the New American Century. In fact Trump has overtaken Bush junior in this respect.
It is pretty clear that members of the Saudi royal family, as well as senior figures in the emirates, Have contributed to the finances of IS, al Qa’eda and other offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet the US administration dispatched CIA director Mike Pompeo to Riyadh in February to meet prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the head of Saudi counterterrorism, to award him the George Tenet medal for “his years of success in battling al Qa’eda and Islamic State”.
How can anyone take US claims seriously when the very people who have sponsored such jihadi groups are rewarded by leaders of the ‘free world’? We also see increased US support for Saudi involvement in Yemen - despite reports of genocide and mass starvation caused by the war, the state department has approved the resumption of arms sales to Saudi Arabia that was previously blocked by Barack Obama. While Obama and Clinton both courted the Saudi kingdom, they also paid lip service to democratic and women’s rights. Trump does not need to pretend he cares about such issues. In fact US-Saudi relations have one aim: combatting Iranian influence in the region. In this respect King Salman and Donald Trump are singing from the same hymn sheet.
The new administration’s relationship with Turkey is as complicated as it was under the previous administration. On the one hand, the US likes to promote Turkey as an example of Islamic democracy; on the other, it is promising Kurds in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria the possible establishment of an independent Kurdish state. By redrawing current borders they hope to weaken Iran, destroying in the process what is left of Iraq and Syria. We should also mention that after the recent referendum that will undoubtedly curb democracy in Turkey, Trump was quick to congratulate president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But Trump is an admirer of a number of unsavoury characters - the list also includes Marine le Pen: Trump was one of the few foreign leaders to congratulate the Front National leader’s success in reaching the second round of the French presidential elections.
Throughout the presidential campaign, even when there were accusations of Russian involvement in the leaking of Clinton’s emails, Trump remained consistent in his admiration for Putin. But now the US has gone along with the general consensus of supporting Ukraine over the Crimea. After the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles on Syria, Trump claimed US-Russian relations were worse than ever (although the US media were quick to remind him that there was such a thing as the cold war).
As far as I can gather, Trump is going to be an even stronger supporter of Israel than Obama was - his main advisor (and son-in-law), Jared Kushner, has financial and political links with Israel. Trump has already declared his opposition to a two-state solution, but we have not seen the dramatic improvement in US-Israel relations some had expected. The fact that the new administration is now expressing the same kind of reservations as Obama when it comes to the issue of settlements has disappointed some Zionists.
While Trump invited Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to the White House, his visit was not covered as prominently as that of Binyamin Netanyahu. During the Abbas visit he focussed on the Palestinian Authority’s ‘security commitments’ - which basically means that Palestine does Israel’s dirty work. Having ridiculed John Kerry and Obama for trying to find a peace deal in the Middle East, Trump is now going down the same route, claiming that as a company CEO he is a “deal-maker”.
Here there is some consistency. One of the most important targets of Trump’s foreign policy is Iran: throughout the presidential election campaign he lambasted the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “the worst deal ever made”. And now Trump is trying to establish a coalition against Iran’s Islamic Republic - an Arab ‘Nato’, uniting Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey against Iran and its regional allies, Syria and Hezbollah.
But again this singling out of Iran is very much in line with the historic neoconservative line of the Republican Party. Trump wants to make Iraq an ally against Iran, which is why the country hosting one of the largest concentrations of IS jihadists was removed from the list of countries affected by the Muslim ban. Iraq has been promised financial support in return for its retreat from the Shia axis under Iran.
Another part of Trump’s plan for this new alliance was to get Russia involved and he sent secretary of state Rex Tillerson to Moscow with his proposals. The Russians were promised the lifting of sanctions, plus greatly improved relations if they moved away from supporting Iran and Syria. But by all accounts this was a miscalculation, and the Russian response was a firm nyet. There are good reasons why Russia supports Assad, including operating in the Mediterranean using the Syrian port of Tartus.
Nonetheless, an alliance against Iran is the cornerstone of the current foreign policy, which the two factions of the Trump administration - the isolationists and the globalists - support for different reasons: while Bannon wants to make America “great again”, Kushner is a staunch supporter of Israel.
I have to confess I find this obsession with Iran bizarre. For all its anti-western rhetoric, the Islamic republic is part of global neoliberal capitalism. It has given up any ambition of exporting its brand of Islam - its operations in Syria and Iraq and its arming of Hezbollah should these days be seen as ‘defensive’, in that they are mainly concerned with the Tehran regime’s own survival. Of course, it remains a repressive, anti-working class, reactionary regime, but the Trump administration does not even pretend to have any concerns about such issues.
On the face of it, IS and other such groups present more of a threat. So why Iran? In my opinion many Americans remember the humiliation of the US hostages in Tehran in 1979-80 and they want revenge. Amongst them are Bannon, who was a junior officer in the navy at the time and was on the ship carrying the helicopters used in the failed rescue attempt. Apparently Bannon regards that as “one of the defining moments of his life”.3
In fact, contrary to the assumptions made in Washington, it is US policy and attempts at regime change from above that have aided the survival of Iran’s Islamic Republic. Iranians are well aware of the consequences of regime change in Libya and Iraq. They would rather vote in rigged elections within the current order than seek the support of a dubious alliance, organised by Trump and paid for by Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.